Backwater cruise from Kottayam to Alleppey

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Kerala - God's Own Country

The backwaters of Kerala is a bewildering labyrinth of interconnected waterways, formed as a result of sea-waves creating short barrier across the mouths of rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range. It is composed of lagoons, lakes, rivers, rivulets, canals, streams and salty seawater. It lies parallel to the Arabian sea-coast of Kerala, has five large lakes interconnected by numerous canals both man-made and natural, and is fed by around thirty-eight rivers. This complex criss-crossing brackish lagoons and lakes, is also the lifeline of the people living around. It is a paradise for the tourists as it gives glimpses of rural Keralite lifestyle that is completely hidden from other modes of transport.

Cruise from Kottayam to Alleppey

Backwaters of Kerala


The houseboats in the backwaters of Kerala are its main attraction. They are known as Kettuvallams; literally meaning boats with knots. Traditionally these boats were used as grain barges to transport the rice grown in the fertile land of backwaters to far-flung areas. These were used to carry large quantities of goods, typically around seven to eight lorry loads of cargo and were punted fore and aft by men using long bamboo sticks. It usually took around a week to move from one place to another. The sailors(businessmen) rarely got enough time to stop in between, even to have their meals. So it was a matter of pride and required plenty of culinary skills to cook the fresh offerings of the backwater. At some point of time, these rice boats were even used by the royalty as its living quarters.

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Kettuvallam

However, there came a time when these woven barges were almost driven out of the business, due to other faster modes of transport. The craftsmen who used to build them and were responsible for their annual overhaul had almost given up any hope of a revival. Then arrived one person with dedication and strong conviction who completely changed the scenario – Mr Babu Varghese. His first task was to overcome the negativity and pessimism of the craftsmen. Babu realized the need to redesign the Kettuvallams and undertook this task on his own. The new designs were not successful initially; but Babu did not give up. He learned from his mistakes and kept on improving over his last attempts. He converted the traditional Kettuvallam rice boat into a touring and cruising houseboat. Kettuvallams were saved and now there are more than a thousand tour boats that ply the backwaters of Kerala, courtesy Babu. My salute to this Hero!

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A basic Kettuvallam is a boat created by making a thatched roof over a wooden hull to cover it from the sun and the rains. The unique thing about them is that not a single nail is hammered into them. They are made with wooden planks, joined and stitched together with coir(coconut fiber) ropes and painted from outside with cashew nut shell oil or the fish oil. These boats are around sixty to seventy feet in length and the design suggests Chinese influence.

Kettuvallam

Kettuvallam

It was new year eve; everything was exorbitantly priced; charges for spending a night in a Kettuvallam sky-rocketed to thrice of its usual price and even in that price they were not readily available. We dropped the idea of renting a houseboat and decided to take a normal cruise. The plan was to move from Thekkady to either Kottayam or to Kumarakom, and then to cruise from there to Alleppy. Most of the locals and the cruise operators in Kumily discouraged us from going to Kumarakom and so we settled for a cruise from Kottayam to Alleppy. There was enough excitement as cruise through shimmering backwaters was a dream about to come true.

We reached Kottayam early morning after a comfortable three-hour drive from Kumily. Kottayam is headquarters of Malayala Manorama, a regional newspaper with highest circulation in the world. It is also the first district of India to achieve hundred percent literacy and Arundhuti Roy, author of “God of Small things”, spent her childhood in a nearby village.

At Kottayam we bought mineral water bottles and also loaded ourselves with snacks to keep Rachit, who was three years old at that time, busy and happy. We are against junk food, but there are exceptions when we travel. We keep the junkies handy, sometimes to give kids instant calories and sometimes to keep them in cheerful mood.

While we were waiting for the arrival of our ship, I noticed that the water was un-clean and the African moss was growing all around – a symptom of serious ecological imbalance. In recent times, the population density of this region has increased manifold, putting pressure on farming and greater reliance on fertilizers. These fertilizers make their way to the water bodies and supplement the growth of moss around. African moss destroys the fragile ecosystem by carpeting the surface of water bodies, denying light and oxygen to the underlying aquatic life.

African moss is a menace for smaller boats as well.

A double-decker boat arrived. Its lower portion was fully covered and it had windows for outside views. The upper portion was partially covered with fibersheet and there were plastic chairs to enjoy the unhindered views. We eagerly occupied the front seats there.

The cruise started from narrow lanes of the backwaters. There were small settlements on the bank of the canals and we were witnessing life from close quarters. Here and there, we saw basic drawbridges. Several times we noticed a few people crossing them. The boat whistled, announced its arrival, people about to cross the bridge were stopped and the bridge was lifted to pave way for ship’s safe passage.

A basicdrawbridge

A basicdrawbridge

Daily life continued both on the water and the coconut-fringed shoreline. At several places men with their fishing rods were patiently trying out their luck in the backyard of their houses. Several women were busy washing clothes and pots. Office-goers were waiting for water taxis at the stands. Most of the people around backwaters rely on boatmen to ferry them across the waterways, sometimes simply to cross the canals and sometimes to connect them with roads and railways. These boatmen crisscross waterways from dawn to dusk and earn their livings. Some of the residents living along the backwaters also have their own small boats.

Local Boats to ferry people around

Local Boats to ferry people around

Fishing in the backwaters

Fishing in the backwaters

Waiting for water-taxis

Waiting for water-taxis

The narrow canals of backwaters

The narrow canals of backwaters

After a brief period of sailing through the narrow lanes with settlements around, the canal started to widen; trails of never-ending coconut trees, dazzling paddy fields spread far and wide, occupied the canvas of the picturesque landscape. The fresh water of the backwaters supports the irrigation of these paddy fields. The coconut trees were protruding towards and away from the canal in strange angles. The Terns perched on the overhead wires in perfect calmness, matching to their serene surroundings. Earthen embankments surrounded the paddy farms around the backwater. The land here is below sea level similar to the lowlands of Netherlands. In Kerala also, the land has been reclaimed from the sea for farming.

Paddy Fields

Paddy Fields

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From wider canals we moved to an open lagoon. Initially we liked the change, however, soon it was monotonous. The cruise was more interesting when we were seeing the human life around. In open vistas, the only relief was the occasional sightings of Kettuvallams. A few Kettuvallams were parked in a corner and were about to start their journey. In shallow waters they were pushed and propelled like Gondolas with long bamboo poles. Once in deep waters, these floating cottages are powered by engine to provide smooth sail. These houseboats are slow-moving to let the tourists on board enjoy and experience the idyllic settings around.

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During the cruise there were two stops. The coconut water served at the first stop provided much-needed refreshment in that hot and humid weather. Rachit, utilized the opportunity to complete the ritual of throwing stones in the world’s water bodies. These stops also provide a chance to get down and to stretch legs as sitting for long with restricted movement becomes tiresome.

Rachit enjoying the cruise

Rachit enjoying the cruise

Finally this four-hour cruise ended in Alleppy and we hired an auto to reach our accommodation – Tharayil Tourist Home. It is a green and clean family run accommodation. The beautiful house relaxed our tired bodies and after taking lunch we crashed on the beds, dreaming of our fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams – the cruise on backwaters and a star-studded night on a Kettuvallam.

Series Navigation<< A visit to the kingdom of spices in KumilyEnticing Munroe Island >>


Comments

  1. Anupam Chakraborty

    December 25, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    What a timing to come back again to your blog and read about the place which is my next travel destination 🙂 Hopefully, I will be there on the first part of January 2015. Its a great story to me and a great read before I reach there. Excellent photographs, beautiful write up and some very good information about Kettuvallams. I really liked it. Will remember your posts when I will be there in January.


  2. Manish Khamesra

    January 2, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Dear Anupam

    Wish you a very happy new year.
    Thanks for linking the post. I hope you would be able to read my reply well in time. Please do include Munroe Island in your itinerary (if you are near kollam), apart from this Fort Kochi is again a great place to roam and walk around).

    Again wishing you a Great New year and wish you a wonderful trip to Kerala. I am in Bangalore right now and hence a delay in my reply.


    • Anupam Chakraborty

      January 30, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Yes Manish I read your reply before I went in Kerala. Unfortunately, I could not go to Munroe Island. Fort Kochi I have explored but I thought 2 days at Fort Kochi was not enough. I think I will visit Kerala again and then surely I will give it a try again. Thanks your tips. One thing more, I like your stories and pressed the like button also 🙂


      • Manish Khamesra

        January 31, 2015 at 10:45 pm

        Thanks Anupam for liking the page/stories and updating about your visit to Kerala. I agree two days are not enough for the Fort Kochi.
        I wish you many further trips to the “God’s Own country” – Kerala.


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